As baseball grew more popular, people wanted to keep up with a sport in which half of the season was spent on the road away from the hometown. Also, people had to work, and since games were played in the afternoon, many could not attend. Enter the baseball writer. Henry Chadwick was the one of the first scribes to cover baseball and is credited with inventing the box score. Shirley Povich, who wrote about baseball with a great knowledge of the game and with the prose of a wordsmith, crafted many a column with unforgettable insight and sharply pointed prose. When Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in the World Series of 1956 on October 8, Povich wrote: “The million to one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen pitched a no-hit no-run no-man reach first base in a World Series.”
Bob Considine called Shirley Povich the master of the “declarative sentence.” He said that Shirley used all the 26 sharp-edged tools of the alphabet to drive home his point. He claimed that Povich never failed to make a point, a thought, a sentiment, a belief. Herbert Bayard Swope called the creation of a daily journalistic endeavor “the curse of everydayness.” But Shirley had turned that endeavor into “the joy of everydayness.”
Shirley Povich was born on July 15, 1905, to Lithuanian immigrant parents. His father and mother, Nathan and Rosa Povich, owned a furniture store in affluent Bar Harbor, Maine. Shirley was one of nine surviving children; the first-born child died when it crawled out on to the back porch, which was held up by pilings on the ocean and fell in and drowned. How did Povich get the name “Shirley”? In Jewish tradition a child is named after someone deceased. Shirley was named after his grandmother Sarah. With Shirley being the eighth child, the family was running out of boy’s names and came up with “Shirley.” Povich went on to explain that he knew at least four other boys in school in Maine who were named “Shirley,” so it did not particularly bother him. (“Shirley” was a masculine name until the 1900s. Shirley Temple opened the floodgates for the name.)
One of his brothers, Abe, was a star high school athlete in football, basketball and baseball. Povich’s contact with the national sports scene came from reading the newspapers that were brought in from Boston on the night boat.
Povich caddied at the country club in Bar Harbor for two years for Ned McLean, owner of the Washington Post. McLean took a liking to Shirley and saw in him a bright and intelligent person. McLean invited Povich to attend his alma mater, Georgetown University, at his expense. Shirley traveled to Washington, D.C., but stopped off in New York, climbed up Coogan’s Bluff and watched as the Giants defeated the Yankees in the World Series. It was the first major league game he had seen. When Shirley arrived in Washington, he caddied for McLean and President Warren G. Harding, in order to help pay for his expenses while he was attending Georgetown. In 1923, Povich became a copy boy at the Washington Post. He attended his first regular season ballgame in Washington, where he saw Walter Johnson pitch.
Shirley, a fast learner, quickly worked his way from the copy desk to the city room. He became a police reporter and a rewrite man. Then in 1924 he was offered a job in the sports department along with a five-dollar raise. He jumped at the chance. Having his name atop an article was so thrilling to him that he could not wait for the paper to come out, so he ran down to the pressroom just to make sure he was not dreaming and ran his hand over the type that carried his name. Barely two years later he was promoted to sports editor at the age of twenty-one, the youngest sports editor at any metropolitan newspaper in America. At that time the Washington Post was a struggling newspaper with low circulation, and Shirley along with others did not have much of a budget to work with.
In 1926, Shirley Povich began his much read and praised column, “This Morning.” Attending the Dempsey-Tunney fight of the “Long Count” fame, he was in the company of such great writers as Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun. Shirley wrote in his column, “although Dempsey lost he actually became more popular than when he was winning.”
On February 21, 1932, Shirley married Ethyl Friedman of Baltimore, whom he had met on a blind date. It was the middle of the Depression, and when Shirley returned from his honeymoon, he learned his pay had been reduced from $60 a week to $51. In fact, every Post employee had been cut by fifteen percent. Things got so bad that several Post employees had to sleep in the Post building because they could not afford regular sleeping quarters. Bob Considine, a promising young reporter, quit the Post and moved to the Herald for better pay. In 1933, McLean auctioned off the Post to Eugene Meyer. The first thing Meyer did was to rescind the pay cuts. The same year Povich gave up his position as sports editor to concentrate on his column.
Apocryphal stories fill the baseball world. How they get started is often a mystery that never gets solved. Shirley covered the 1932 World Series when Babe Ruth supposedly pointed to the centerfield bleachers at Wrigley Field and on the next pitch deposited the ball to that very spot. But Shirley talked to Bill Dickey, the Yankee catcher, years later, and Dickey told a different story. Dickey’s story was that Ruth was not pointing to the bleachers in centerfield but at Charlie Root, the Cub pitcher who had quick-pitched Ruth on the previous pitch. Ruth was angry and told Root in no uncertain terms not to do it again. Shirley asked Dickey, “How do you know this?” Dickey replied, “Because Ruth told us when he came back to the bench.” “How come you never told anybody?” Dickey said, “All of us players could see it was a helluva story so we just made an agreement not to bother straightening out the facts.”
Baseball is full of facts and statistics, and the overwhelming amounts can leave us cross-eyed and bewildered. To make a point, one day in the middle 1950s, Shirley was writing his daily column when he was surprised to see a man enter his office. The stranger was ill kempt and looked as if he needed a good meal. “You don’t know me,” the man said. “No, I don’t,” replied Shirley. “My name is Dick Crutcher and I pitched for the Boston Braves in 1914 and won a few games for them.” Shirley looked around on his desk and spied the Encyclopedia of Baseball. He quickly scanned the pages and, sure enough, found the name Richard Louis Crutcher. Shirley asked the man where he was born. The man answered, “Frankfort, Kentucky in 1893.” “The book says 1891,” noted Shirley. The man said, “Those figures aren’t correct, I ought to know when I was born.” Shirley: “How many games did you win in 1914?” The man “I won 5 and lost 6.” Shirley looked in the encyclopedia and saw that the man was correct. As the man was about to leave, Shirley’s eye caught another item in the encyclopedia. “It says here that you died on June 19, 1952.” The man, highly indignant, drew himself up to his full height and replied, “Remember what I said about those figures?” he roared. “They’re not always accurate.” Was the man who he said he was? How is a writer to extract the truth?
Povich opposed racism in all sports. When first writing on Joe Louis he did not paint him in a good light. He saw Louis as a “Dark Destroyer.” But after Louis’ defeat by Max Schmeling in 1936, Povich was won over to Louis as a man who had been following a pattern of modesty and self-effacement. After Louis defeated James J. Braddock for the heavyweight championship, Povich predicted rightly that Louis would be champ for a long time.
Though Povich wrote about all sports, his favorite was baseball. In defense of baseball being a dull sport, Povich wrote, “Only the people who think so are dull.” Povich cited the interludes in a ball game when a pitcher was fiddling with the ball on the mound staring at some six-foot, 200-pounder whose aim was to knock the ball down his throat. And the man coming to bat knocking the dirt out his spikes when there really is no dirt was a man a little reluctant to dig in against a man sixty feet six inches away who was ready to toss a hard ball at him going 95 miles per hour. Povich wrote about the balletic beauty of the double play and the crunch of a headlong slide into homeplate on a close play when the runner’s head meets the shin guards of an immovable catcher.
When Lou Gehrig made his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, Shirley Povich wrote, “I saw strong men weep this afternoon, expressionless umpires swallow hard and emotions pump the hearts of and glaze the eyes of 60,000 baseball fans in Yankee Stadium. Yes, and hard-boiled news photographers clicked their shutters with fingers that trembled a bit.”
Povich argued for desegregation in baseball. In 1941 he went to Florida and watched several Negro League teams. He felt that many were better than current major leaguers and many were just as good.
Between 1971 and 1973, sportswriter Jerome Holtzman conducted a number of interviews with senior and retired sportswriters. The questions he proffered were about the dual roles of the sportswriter as reporter and as publicist of ballclubs, what was appropriate and inappropriate to write about. One of those interviewed was Shirley Povich. Shirley said that at the beginning of his writing career on baseball he was a “Hero Worshiper.” Shirley described the long trips during his early years covering the Senators: “There you were in your trains, your private cars, and you worked on the trains of course. And from Boston to St. Louis it was something like twenty hours. But you were there with the ballplayers. You got to know them. You got to be friendly with those you wanted to be friendly with and you learned which ballplayers didn’t like writers. A great many.” Later he detached himself from the ballplayers, feeling that he gained both independence and confidence. “You say to yourself” Povich said, “They’re the ballplayers. Let them play the game. I’m a reporter. It’s a necessary separation.”
The possibility of co-optation will always loom over any sportswriter’s head especially when following a game that involves the reporter traveling with the team. The danger always exists of baseball scratching the reporter’s back and vice versa in a possible harmful symbiotic relationship. G. Edward White in his book Creating the National Pastime stated that, “The significance of baseball journalists in the emergence of baseball as the National Pastime was also a function of the nature and limits of their coverage. Whatever journalists and players thought of one another in the fifty years after 1903, neither side could have remotely anticipated the often adversarial, stage managed, yet sycophantic relationship that exists between professional ballplayers and the media today.” Povich took steps to avoid this by distancing himself from the players.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, plunging America into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 gave his blessing to Major League baseball to continue as a morale booster for the country. This caused Povich to write, “That man in the White House did indeed earn the label of the Nation’s First Fan.” However, Povich went on to add that baseball stars and journeymen alike had a duty to serve their country when called. He felt that the dodging of the draft in World War I by players working in shipyards in order to avoid the draft should not be allowed.
Povich himself became a war correspondent in the South Pacific along with Ernie Pyle. He spent some time with Pyle and was scheduled to accompany him to Ie Shima, but he broke several ribs due to air-turbulence while flying. It was at Ie Shima that Pyle was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Povich covered the bloody battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa with the First Marine Division.
Povich returned to the United States at the tail end of the 1945 season and resumed covering baseball. In 1947, Jackie Robinson apparently became the first black player to play in the major leagues, but Povich revealed that Moses Fleetwood Walker held that honor. When the signing of Jackie Robinson occurred Shirley wrote, “Four hundred and fifty-five years after Columbus eagerly discovered America, major league baseball reluctantly discovered the American Negro.” He felt that the complete emancipation of the black ballplayer occurred when an Art Ditmar fastball decked Larry Doby, and Doby got up, charged the mound, and threw a punch at Ditmar. Jackie Robinson had been under severe restraints from arguing with umpires and fighting with other players. Now the bonds had been loosened.
In 1961 Shirley made the list of Who’s Who of American Women. The honor was rescinded when it was discovered that Shirley was actually a man.
Povich hammered at the owner of the Washington Redskins, George Preston Marshall, who refused to hire black football players at a time when most other teams were employing them. This caused Shirley to write, “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Washington Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”
Shirley could be acerbic at times. He felt the rebuff of Howard Cosell when he criticized Cosell in his column. Cosell never spoke to Povich again. Povich for his part said, “I’ll just have to live with that.” Povich felt that modern sportswriting concerned itself more with the personal lives of sports figures than it had in yesteryear. He thought the later breed of writers talented, but thought they often wrote as if they were trying to avoid the subject. He felt that his generation of writers was more penetrating.
Povich was president of the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1955. Some of his other honors include The National Headliners Award in 1947, the E.P. Dutton Prize for best short story news-coverage in 1957, the Grantland Rice Award for sportswriting in 1964, and the Red Smith Award in 1983. In 1975 he was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award.
Shirley retired in 1974 but still wrote occasionally for the Post. He later said that his favorite ballplayers to interview were Ted Williams and Walter Johnson. He said that the brash young Williams matured into a more personable human being. The hardest player he tried to interview was Joe DiMaggio.
Povich and his wife Ethyl had three children, two boys and a girl. David is an attorney in the law firm of Williams and Connolly; Maury is a talk show host and married to newscaster Connie Chung; and Lynn was the first woman senior editor at Newsweek is the author of The Good Girls Revolt, a book about the sex discrimination lawsuit that she and others filed against the magazine.
Povich could be biting at times, but he tried to do it in a gentlemanly way. He was direct and to the point, but his arrows were rarely tipped with venom. When Shirley died, there was a great outpouring of praise for him from the many who started their mornings with Shirley’s column. There were people who felt that Shirley almost single-handedly kept the Post alive in the 1920s and 1930s through his column. His column, some said, was like cereal in the morning, warm and inviting. To them he was the warm-hearted guy who said, “Welcome to the day.”
The scribes of ancient times were indeed masters of the declarative sentence as they paid homage to their heroes. Shirley Povich’s heroes were of a different kind-ballplayers, fighters, and gridiron heroes. And though he used the declarative in writing about these people, he also knew they were only after all mere mortal human beings.
One big love affair-that was how Shirley Povich described his 75-year marriage to the Washington Post. At his 75th anniversary George Solomon, assistant managing editor/sports said, “Shirley is a great sports writer, an even greater human being and truly the most remarkable man I ever met.”
Shirley Lewis Povich died on June 4, 1998, of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., at the age of 92. Surviving him were his wife Ethyl, sons David and Maury, and daughter Lynn.
Shirley Povich is one of the few sportswriters to have had a baseball park named after him. Shirley Povich Field, completed in 1999, is located in Cabin John Park in North Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. It is the home field for the Bethesda Big Train, a team in the Clark Griffith Summer Collegiate Baseball League.
Povich, Shirley. All These Mornings. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
_____. The Washington Senators. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1954.
Shirley Povich Files at National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown,
Ward, Geoffrey C. and Burns, Ken. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf, 1994.
Washington Post.com; Shirley Povich Tribute.
White, G. Edward. Creating the National Pastime. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.